of the Chitimacha language team (from left to right) Sam Boutte,
Kim Walden and Rachel Vilcan use the new language software
for the first time.
(photo courtesy of Daniel W Hieber
In the summer of 1930, at the dawn of the Great Depression,
a 21-year-old linguist named Morris
Swadesh set out for Louisiana to record the area's Native American
languages, which were disappearing rapidly.
Morris and his peers were in a race against time to document
them, and in the small town of Charenton on the Bayou Teche, he
encountered Benjamin Paul and Delphine Ducloux, members of a small
tribe called Chitimacha and the last two speakers of their
But today, if you visited the Chitimacha
reservation, you'd never know that their language went unspoken
for half a century.
Over the past several decades, many
Native American tribes have participated in what has become
a robust language
revitalization movement. As their populations of fluent speakers
dwindle and age, tribes want to ensure that their heritage languages
are passed on to the next generation before it's too late.
But because the Chitimacha tribe had no living speakers for
a number of decades, it made the challenge that much greater. In
the end, the story of the language's decline, loss and rebirth is
a remarkable example of cultural survival.
Why document a language?
Unlike some other cultural legacies, languages leave
no trace in the archaeological record. There's often no trace in
the written record, either.
a small portion of the world's estimated 7,000
languages are well-documented in places like dictionaries and
grammar books. Those that are least well-documented are the most
Many dead or dying languages contain exotic features of verbal
and written communication. Chitimacha, for example, doesn't use
a word "be" in phrases like "she is reading." Instead, speakers
must use a verb of position, such as "she sits reading" or "she
stands reading." These are things that challenge
linguists' understanding of how language works.
By working with Ben and Delphine, Morris was trying to capture
a small piece of that linguistic diversity before it vanished.
One day, with Morris sitting on Ben's porch dutifully scribbling
down his every word in a composition notebook, Ben finished a story
(a riveting tale of how the Chitimacha first acquired fire by stealing
it from a mythical old blind man in the west). He then went on to
There were very many stories about the west. I believe
I am doing well. I have not forgotten everything yet. When I die,
you will not hear that sort of thing again. I am the only one
here who knows the stories.
Ben passed away three years later, and Delphine not long thereafter.
After their deaths, it seemed the Chitimacha language was doomed
portrait of two Chitimacha by French-born painter François
Bernard (1870). Wikimedia Commons
Why do languages die?
How does a language come to have only two speakers?
Why have so many Native American languages become endangered? The
causes are manifold, but there are two main ones: sharp reductions
in the population of the community that speaks the language, and
interruptions in the traditional means of transferring the language
from one generation to the next.
In the past, the former caused the most damage. Native American
peoples were decimated by European diseases and subject to outright
Prior to European contact, the Chitimacha were lords of the
bayou, with a territory stretching from Vermillion Bay in the west
to present-day New Orleans in the east. They were expert canoe-makers
and wielded extensive knowledge of the region's labyrinthian network
But by the time the French arrived in present-day Louisiana
in 1699, the tribe's numbers had dwindled
to around 4,000, their communities gutted by European diseases
that spread faster than the Europeans themselves.
After a protracted war with the French, they retreated deep
into the bayou, where the their reservation at Charenton sits today.
The 1910 census recorded just
69 people living there.
Only later did the second cause of language decline occur, when
children on the reservation were sent to the infamous Carlisle Indian
School in Pennsylvania, which interrupted the transmission of the
language to the next generation.
Ben and Delphine, born in the latter half of the 1800s, were
part of the last generation to learn the language at home. Eventually
their parents and many of their peers passed away, leaving them
as the last two speakers of the language.
Ducloux was one of the two last speakers of the Chitimacha
language, prior to its revival. State Library of Louisiana
Renaissance on the bayou
Ben probably never imagined that the efforts of him
and Delphine would spark the tribe's linguistic renaissance, awakening
their language from 60 years of silence.
In the early 1990s, cultural director for the tribe Kim Walden
received a call from the American
Philosophical Society Library informing her that they had all
notebooks, and even his drafts for a grammar manual and dictionary,
which totaled hundreds of pages in all. Thus began the herculean
effort to revive the language.
The tribe put together a small-but-dedicated team of language
experts, who set out to learn their language as quickly as possible.
They began to produce storybooks based on Ben and Delphine's stories,
and word lists from the dictionary manuscript.
In 2008, the tribe partnered with the software company Rosetta
Stone on a two-year project to create computer software for learning
the language, which today every registered tribal member has a copy
is where I came in, serving as editor and linguist consultant
for the project, a monumental collaborative effort involving thousands
of hours of translating, editing, recording and photographing. We're
now hard at work finishing a complete dictionary and learner's reference
grammar for the language.
Chitimacha language: related to no other language in the world.
Today, if you stroll through the reservation's school, you'll
hear kids speaking Chitimacha in language classes, or using it with
their friends in the hall. At home they practice with the Chitimacha
version of Rosetta Stone, and this past year the tribe even launched
a preschool immersion program.
The kids even make up slang that baffles adult ears, a sure
sign that the language is doing well and hopefully will continue
to thrive, into the next generation and beyond.
Daniel W. Hieber worked as part of Rosetta Stone's Endangered Language
Program from 2008-2011. His current research is funded by a Graduate
Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.